ST. LOUIS - They rewarded the patience of an already accomplished coach and provided their league with an unprecedented run of depth.
Mostly, the North Carolina veterans validated their own worth with Monday's 75-70 defeat of Illinois in the championship game of one of the most memorable NCAA men's basketball tournaments.
Juniors Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants were pouty freshmen two years ago, when their disenchantment with Matt Doherty got him fired and created the opening for North Carolina to finally bring Roy Williams back into the family.
Seniors Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams had an even rockier college initiation, as their debut in 2001-02 ended in an 8-20 debacle. Going from one of the worst teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference to the nation's best added to their storybook ending at the Edward Jones Dome.
"We were at the bottom, and there was no way to go but up," said Scott, a Baltimore native who played at Southern High. "It's like it was written, that this was how it was supposed to end."
Scott was mellowed by a locker room celebration that included hugs from North Carolina greats Michael Jordan and Dean Smith, maybe the greatest basketball player ever and Division I's all-time winningest coach. Echoing his more scrutinized teammates, Scott then struck a defiant tone.
"We appreciate all the specialists who said we weren't a team," Scott said. "We shut them up."
A team previously maligned for its distaste for doing the dirty work that wins championships, North Carolina checked Illinois into 27 percent shooting in the first half and allowed just one basket in the last four minutes.
Whether it was Scott drawing a charge from center James Augustine, freshman forward Marvin Williams scoring the winning points with a spectacular left-handed put-back, or Felton and May placing their imprint all over the first NCAA final to match the nation's top two ranked teams in 30 years, North Carolina wasn't going to be denied.
Besides beating Bruce Weber's No. 1 team, the Tar Heels brought Williams his first title, capping a remarkable 17-year head coaching career that had already included 468 wins and four Final Fours before this one.
Williams thanked his family, his players and Doherty, who played with Jordan on North Carolina's 1982 champions and recruited the two upper classes.
"If Matt was right there," Williams said, "I would give [him] a big hug."
Williams has said that he never would have gotten an opportunity to return to his alma mater if May's freshman season hadn't been disrupted by foot injuries, which sped the firing of Doherty.
The Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, May mirrored his father and another outrageous shooting performance that came in a St. Louis championship game.
Completing the third father-son duo to win NCAA titles, May had game highs of 26 points and 10 rebounds. In 1975, Indiana's Scott May scored 26 points in the final. Sean May made 10 of his 11 field-goal attempts, evoking the 20-for-21 shooting show put on here in 1973 by UCLA's Bill Walton.
Unable to watch the dramatic closing minutes, Scott May left the stands and watched the ending unfold on a TV screen.
"He's [usually] not a very emotional person," said May, who watched a DVD about Indiana's undefeated 1976 champions three times while here. "I don't know if I'll ever watch it again."
Among those who made his 21st birthday complete was Felton, who made enough big plays at both ends down the stretch to hold off an Illinois team that nearly duplicated its comeback on Arizona that got the Fighting Illini here.
Marvin Williams could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. McCants' carelessness with the ball could affect his future, though his coach said he plans to enter the draft, but May's stock is soaring, and Felton, the other junior, showed he's ready to go pro. On a night when Illinois launched a record 40 three-pointers, Felton made four of five from behind the arc in a great matchup with Deron Williams.
When the season began, Maryland's John Gilchrist was still basking in the glow of his ACC tournament Most Valuable Player award, Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack had an NCAA final under his belt and Wake Forest's Chris Paul was regarded as the nation's most talented guard.
In addition to a superior supporting cast, Felton also has something those other point guards don't - an NCAA ring.
"When I see Raymond, I just see one big heart," Roy Williams said. "To make the free throws, the big plays, he's a tough little rascal."
North Carolina's last three tournament wins came over Wisconsin, Michigan State and the team those two trailed in the Big Ten.
The Tar Heels' fourth title was their first since 1993. Never before has one conference produced three different champions in a five-year span, as North Carolina follows Duke in 2001 and Maryland in 2002.
NOTE: Monday's game was the highest-rated NCAA men's final since 1999. CBS' coverage got an overnight rating of 16.0 with a 23 share. That's up 43 percent from last year's 11.2 with a 17 share the network got for Connecticut's win over Georgia Tech. It's the best rating for an NCAA title game since Connecticut's win over Duke in 1999 got a 16.9 with a 25 share.